MARLBORO- Before the residents of Marlboro voted resoundingly against the proposed school governance merger with Dover and Wardsboro on Tuesday, residents took advantage of their last chance to air their grievances over the proposal at the annual Town Meeting.
As the residents arrived at the Town House early Tuesday morning, four girls stood outside the post office with signs encouraging people to vote “no” on the merger, and resident Casey Deane handed out pamphlets entitled “Reasons for Keeping the Junior High School at MES.” Meanwhile, junior high students held a bake sale to help fund their upcoming trip to Costa Rica.
Inside the crowded building, the meeting began with attendees voting to suspend the town business in favor of starting with school board proposals. Once they moved on to the special warning relating to the merger, moderator Steven John emphasized that he wanted to make sure everyone had the chance to voice their opinion.
The majority of attendees seemed doubtful about the supposed benefits of the merger. The community’s losses – the closing of the junior high and reduced local control over the school board – were more tangible and certain than the possible benefits.
While the state is offering tax reductions to school boards that merge, residents were not swayed by the financial incentive. Resident Andrew Richardson told attendees, “It’s my opinion that you can’t put a price on education for your kids.”
It was also unclear just how much money, if any, would have been saved by the merger. “It’s unrealistic of us, as a community, to say, ‘this is going to save us money, this is going to cost money,’ – we really don’t know,” said Lauren Poster, who is on the school board.
But most seemed certain that the loss of the junior high would be a substantial cost for the community to bear. Resident Judy Robertson, whose children currently attend the Marlboro School, talked about the family-like environment of a small school. “That’s really dangerous for us to give up,” she said.
For students who are already “on the margins,” she said, the transition to a larger institution like Brattleboro Area Middle School during their vulnerable early-teen years could be harmful.
Aidan Salasin-Deane, a recent graduate of the junior high at Marlboro, spoke about how his experience there had positively shaped his attitude toward education. He mentioned the class government and science class trips such as the one to Costa Rica as examples of Marlboro junior high programs that cannot be found at other schools.
Resident Peter Moss put the question directly to John. “What would be a demonstrable great benefit of voting ‘yes’?”
“Uh…” began John, followed by laughter from the audience.
John went on to explain that he felt that Act 46 mergers could promote greater equity between school districts, and would provide students with more opportunities. He felt that residents should be open to the possibility of improving the Marlboro School, instead of simply assuming that it is already as good as it could be.
School board members Celena Romo and Carol Ann Lobo-Johnson, who helped develop the merger plan, both spoke in favor of it. Romo said that, from a statewide perspective, school board mergers would help to solve spending disparities between school districts.
Lobo-Johnson talked about the attractive curriculum options at the schools in Dover and Wardsboro, such as the International Baccalaureate program, and Spanish language classes beginning in preschool. Increased school choice would allow students more opportunities.
Lobo-Johnson also told the audience that for her, the junior high is not what makes Marlboro special. “Look around you…it’s all of you,” she said.
John and Romo also seemed to imply that there was not much that residents could do to avoid the consequences of Act 46 in the long run. John told the attendees that he believed that Marlboro should not expect the Legislature to significantly amend the law in a way that would allow the town to do what it wants.
“Change is coming whether we like it or not. Act 46 is not going away,” said Romo.
But by the time the polls closed at 7 pm on Tuesday, Marlboro residents had made their choice clear: The results showed 264 against the merger, and 66 in favor.
Since Marlboro was only “advisable” in the merger, Dover and Wardsboro could have merged without them. In that case, Marlboro would have had a year to join them, if that option became more appealing.
But Wardsboro, which was essential to the merger, also voted against the proposal, 79 to 62.
At the Town Meeting, the school board was asked what would happen in the event of a “no” vote. Poster said that the board’s plans for that event “have been a moving target,” a phrase that was often repeated during the meeting.
However, she said, at that point it was likely that they would apply to the state as an alternative structure, and try to keep their small schools grant. Those measures could allow the community to maintain local control.
The discussion on the proposed merger was suspended for a Q & A session with Emily Long, the state representative for the Windham-5 district (which includes the towns of Townshend, Newfane, and Marlboro). Long fielded questions ranging from Gov. Phil Scott’s education budget freeze, to the selling and taxing of marijuana, to the political climate in Montpelier since the national election.
One resident asked Long if she thought that Marlboro School had the chance of being approved for an alternative structure. While Long was not sure what might happen, she commended the efforts of Marlboro’s school board and residents in the face of impending change.
“There is not a community in the state of Vermont who has worked harder on Act 46 than your town,” she told the attendees.
While Act 46 and the proposed merger was the most contentious issue at the meeting, residents also took the opportunity to express their opposition to President Trump.
Resident Jess White asked Long if Marlboro could make an impact by passing a resolution calling for Trump’s impeachment.
Many attendees saw merit in the idea, but fears about the possibility of being sued eventually quelled the motion.
Under Article 21, which calls for discussion of nonbinding business, resident Woody Bernhardt presented a declaration stating that “We, the voters of the Town of Marlboro, Vermont, proudly support the civil rights of all people without regard to their race, religion, gender or economic status.”
After some discussion, the declaration was broadened to include “all people without regard to their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, disability, age, or education level.” Some objected that the rewritten motion was too “convoluted,” but it passed with little opposition.
The residents also voted on the school district budget for the upcoming fiscal year. School board member Douglas Korb pointed out that the projected spending per equalized pupil had increased by 1% over the current year.
Korb cited a variety of expenses that contributed to the increase: a new pre-owned school bus, a much-needed new boiler for the school building, a 16% increase in high school enrollment, and a new retirement plan for municipal employees who are not licensed teachers.
After the school board responded to some questions, the new budget of $2,582,426 passed unanimously.
Under nonbinding business, one resident suggested that, in the spirit of equity, Town Meeting day should be a paid holiday in Vermont.
While not dismissing the suggestion, Lobo-Johnson encouraged residents to use their power in other forums, such as school board and selectboard meetings.
“We need to take advantage of our democracy 365 days a year,” she said.